Architecture Plan Copying: A History of the Development of Reprographics and Reprography

Blueprinting, reprographics, large format, and other names

I interviewed Ewan Tallentire, owner of Denver-area reprographics shop Albion Repro & Graphics, about the changes he’s seen over a couple decades in the blueprinting industry, and the history before that. Yes, I know, reprographics doesn’t sound like an exciting topic. But it’s related to both architecture and printing, so between great buildings and Johannes Gutenberg, there's a lot of related history.

Reprographics goes by many names, such as blueprinting, large format printing, wide format copying, digital publishing, and document printing. The name changes because the product changes, as new technology comes into use. It’s always been about those drawings you build from: construction plans, blueprints, architect drawings, house plans, home plans, engineering drawings, floor plans, landscaping plans, etc. But as the drawings went from pencil to computer, how they got copied also changed. What hasn’t changed: the job hazard of paper cuts!

Real blueprints, or not?

Something old, and something borrowed - 1925 blueprint of the Rusk Building
Something old, and something borrowed - 1925 blueprint of the Rusk Building | Source
Something new and blue - actually the original is a scan of a 1930s black-and-white tissue paper sketch, but it's been Photoshopped in 2011 to resemble a real blueprint
Something new and blue - actually the original is a scan of a 1930s black-and-white tissue paper sketch, but it's been Photoshopped in 2011 to resemble a real blueprint
A real blueprint, at least figuratively.  A digital file to be printed on bond paper; a "blueprint" in the sense that it's a building plan
A real blueprint, at least figuratively. A digital file to be printed on bond paper; a "blueprint" in the sense that it's a building plan

Reprographics industry trends - less space, price, and smell

Reprographics became a business independent from architecture because architects and contractors didn’t want big, noisy, smelly machines in their offices, not to mention the training, experience, and money the machines required. Recently, printers, plotters, and other reprographic equipment have become small, cheap, and non-toxic enough to fit many offices. Today’s prints are usually black-and-white printing on bond paper, most often the 24x36 size. There’s no need for the variety of media and printers that existed in the past, and the shelf life of supplies is much longer. As a result, many architecture firms and contractors do their own printing, and many reprographics shops have gone out of business or changed focus. Like blacksmithing after cars replaced horses, reprographics is changing as an industry, but it still has its uses.

The search for the ideal: reprographic media and printers

To understand where things are going in reprography, you have to look at how it got where it is today. From the beginning, it’s been a search for the fastest, easiest, and cheapest solution to three problems:

  • something to draw on
  • something to make copies on
  • something to keep for a record

The following timeline shows some of the types of printers and media used for copying, and what order they came in. I do wonder what the first architects of the US Capitol would have thought of AutoCAD and floor plans that could be emailed rather than engraved.

A timeline of reprographics

 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
Before 1861
Late 1800s
Early 1900s
1970s
Early 1990s
Mid-2000s
What originals were on
Linen
Vellum
Vellum/paper sepia
Vellum/paper sepia
Vellum/T-Bond
Digital files
What cheap prints were on
Hand-traced to linen
Cyanotype blueprints
Diazo process blueprints (mid-century?)
Bluelines
Bluelines
Bond paper
What copies for record were on
Linen
Vellum
Vellum
Photomylar
Photomylar
Mylar
What kind of plotter
N/A
N/A
N/A
Pen plotter
Inkjet plotter
Color inkjet plotter
What kind of printer
N/A
Sunlight and ammonia in a can?
Blueprint machine
Blueline machine
Analog bond copier
Digital bond copier

Architectural originals: the need for stable and reproducible records

Once you’ve designed a building, you want to keep the records for very practical reasons of knowing where you can make changes or how repairs will affect it, but also for historical reasons to show future generations what you did.  So it would be nice if the original plans could last as long as the building itself.  You don’t want to expose the originals to the wear and tear of the construction site, so you want copies made for actual use. 

You also may want what I’ll call semi-originals; copies of all or part of the original printed on something stable enough to treat like an original.  That way an architect in Denver can keep his originals while sending the semi-originals to a building site in Kansas City, without fear of losing everything in the mail.

Before the digital age of large-format printing (which didn’t really arrive until this millennium), there were several processes for copying.  All these processes were variations of shining light through the original onto a print which was treated with chemicals so shadows turned a different color from light areas.  So for fastest and best results, originals needed to be transparent, or at least as translucent as possible.

1932 blueprint

1932 blueprint, of a tennis house.  Notice the beautiful hand-lettering.
1932 blueprint, of a tennis house. Notice the beautiful hand-lettering.

Architectural originals: linen

Two hundred years ago, linen was often used both for the original drawings and for hand-tracing the plans from the original onto a copy for record. This linen was the same stuff that's used in high-quality old books: it looks like paper but it’s actually a thin woven fabric without the acidic wood pulp of regular paper. It had a paraffin-based coating to make it easier to draw on. Ewan tells of a linen original brought into his shop which was dated about 1872 and was probably drawn on with a quill pen.

This is what paper sepias look like, but this isn't actually a sepia.  It's the same sketch shown above as a "blueprint", this time Photoshopped in sepia colors.
This is what paper sepias look like, but this isn't actually a sepia. It's the same sketch shown above as a "blueprint", this time Photoshopped in sepia colors.

Architectural originals: vellum and paper sepia

Linen tended to shrink slightly, so the standard for originals became vellum, which, like linen, is fairly translucent. This is not true vellum; real vellum is made from animal hide stretched and scraped (rather than tanned, which makes leather). What is called vellum now is made of 100% rags (as opposed to the wood pulp that regular paper is mostly made of).

Vellum was the standard drawing base for 50 years or more, starting in the early 1900s. In the early years of vellum, part of the drawing might be copied to paper sepia (in a diazo process which exposed the sepia to light then developed it with ammonia). Paper sepia was vellum-based with a sepia-colored emulsion. The sepia was then a semi-original that could be copied from and/or kept for record. Another use of paper sepias was to save time and effort by copying the base floor plan of a multi-story building onto paper sepia, then drawing in the details of each floor separately.

Paper sepia was still being used in the 1990s; a floor plan might be drawn on vellum, then the electrical plan filled in on the paper sepia. Since architects can now draw on a computer and print directly from the file, vellum has gone out of general use for drafting (though some colleges teach hand drafting on vellum so students aren’t completely dependent on computers). Artists still use vellum, for tracing over a pencil sketch and transferring it to canvas.

Watch how you stretch an animal hide to dry for vellum

Tissue paper sketch of landscaping

Tissue paper sketch of mansion's landscaping (dated somewhere between 1932 and 1936)
Tissue paper sketch of mansion's landscaping (dated somewhere between 1932 and 1936)
Detail of the landscaping
Detail of the landscaping

Architectural originals: tissue paper

Ewan’s shop scanned some prints, dated from 1932 to 1936, from a mansion in Denver. These were the landscaping prints, and they were on tissue paper (also known as sketch, or tracing, paper). While buildings would have been drawn on vellum, landscaping was usually just one plan, a quick sketch drawn while talking to the customer, so it was reasonable to use something as fragile but cheap as tissue paper. See this HubPage for a picture of what landscape designs look like today (hint: it's sure not a quick sketch!)

Architectural copies for record: Mylar

Mylar was, and is still, used as semi-originals, as copies for record. Mylar was developed in the 1950s, and is used in many applications (such as balloons). Its value in record-keeping is that it doesn’t rip easily, and doesn’t fade or change color as other kinds of copies do. Bluelines and paper sepias tend to go on changing when exposed to light or heat, so lines fade or images get transferred to the next paper in the stack. Mylar was first used in reprographics as Photomylar; the original was literally photographed onto the Mylar film (I'll eventually explain what kind of camera makes poster-sized pictures!) But it was a messy, expensive, wasteful, and time-consuming process. And though the result was fairly stable, it wasn’t durable: the emulsion was so soft you could scratch the image off with your thumbnail.

Eventually Mylar was developed to run through printers in a xerographic process like paper. That way, the emulsion is actually infused in the Mylar instead of sitting on top of the film. Modern Mylars have mostly replaced Photomylar, but there are rumors of municipalities around the country that still require Photomylars for records, assuming (and I can't say I blame them) that an older process must be more trustworthy than something digital.

Architectural record-keeping issues

One question record-keepers have to face is the value of the records compared to the expense. Ewan says Mylar prints cost about 6 times more than bond paper prints, and he questions whether their advantages over bond paper are really worth that cost. The main point of a Mylar was to be a stable translucent base to copy bluelines from, and since bluelines have been superseded, translucency in an original isn’t important anymore. Ewan also points out that reprographers dislike Mylar since the edges are tough enough to scratch the glass on printers.

On the one hand, he would like to see all Photomylars scanned to file and stored digitally on disks, but on the other hand, there is a reason record-keepers trust older formats more. Who knows what digital storage format will be in 10 years? It may be worth more to print expensively now than to convert files to a new format down the road. Physical copies are comfortingly compatible with the real world. Ewan likes to say he’s never seen a pencil be incompatible with another pencil.

The copies and copiers

There is much more to say, about the copies (blueprints, bluelines, and bond) themselves, and the printers, plotters, and giant cameras that did the copying.

Read Part Two to find out which is a blueline and which is a blueprint.

Read Part Three to find out how big a room-sized camera is.

More by this Author


Comments 13 comments

Londonlady profile image

Londonlady 5 years ago

"Why aren't blueprints blue anymore?" You know...this was a great topic to make a hub about! Very informative, voted UP! :)


aethelthryth profile image

aethelthryth 5 years ago from American Southwest Author

Thank you, Londonlady. I certainly learned a lot from writing it.


Simone Smith profile image

Simone Smith 5 years ago from San Francisco

Wow, how fascinating! I was not even familiar with the word reprographics before reading your Hub. I've learned a ton! Voted up and awesome.


aethelthryth profile image

aethelthryth 5 years ago from American Southwest Author

Thank you, Simone. I have another article half written about why nobody knows what "reprographics" means, including most reprographers! I think it has a specific meaning, but it's become one of those management words like "empower" and "actualize" which people use to mean "copying" because they've heard it from other people, and it sounds more educated than the plain English.


phdast7 profile image

phdast7 4 years ago from Atlanta, Georgia

This was absolutely fascinating and so full of interesting and little-understood information. MY grandfather was a sculptor by training, but he supported his family by working for Lockheed-Martin in the "blueprint" division where they were designing all kinds of aircraft.

What a great read! SHARING


aethelthryth profile image

aethelthryth 4 years ago from American Southwest Author

phdast7, thank you for the comment and the share. I would LOVE to see a real aircraft blueprint.


phdast7 profile image

phdast7 4 years ago from Atlanta, Georgia

If I had one I would "make a copy" and send it to you. MY grandfather dies about twenty years ago but several boxes of his papers were in my father's basement. I did not know this until two years ago when my father died. My brothers and I went through those boxes carefully and there were no blueprints...although I imagine security was very tight, so I doubt he got to causally bring home such things.

But if he had managed to, what a find that would be. :)


toyin 4 years ago

i dont really get what i want, i mean , i want to know the types of reprography and you are giving me another thing.


aethelthryth profile image

aethelthryth 4 years ago from American Southwest Author

toyin, my understanding is there are three types of reprography: blueprint, blueline, and digital (including inkjet, pen plotters, large-format laser printers, or anything else that works from a digital file.)

Printing banners and signs is considered "large-format printing", but the term "reprography" seems to be for architectural printing.


Mary 4 years ago

Thank you for the answer, but you have not give me what i want. Am asking for types of Reprography process.


aethelthryth profile image

aethelthryth 4 years ago from American Southwest Author

Mary, maybe you will find what you want in Part Two or Part Three of the series. I don't seem to be able to put the links in this comment, but the links are not far above the comment section here.


mirandagoodenough profile image

mirandagoodenough 4 years ago from Sydney

I learned more about architecture plan in this hub more than the many so-called bestsellers. I applaud this blog for educating people like me. I don't even know a word like "reprographics" exist. Much appreciated!


aethelthryth profile image

aethelthryth 4 years ago from American Southwest Author

Thank you, mirandagoodenough; it's really one of those things in life there's probably no reason to know about unless you really love paper and printing, or just like knowing things other people don't!

I guess both of those things are true of me.

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